For comedy team James & Ernie—James Junes and Ernest Tsosie—job number 1 is obvious: Be funny. But chasing giggles and guffaws isn't all they're about; the humor is a vehicle for bringing their message to Indian country. "Ernie and I are recovering drug addicts and alcoholics," Junes says, explaining their involvement with Project Peace Train (PPT), an organization started by Tsosie's father, Ernest Jr., and brother John. PPT's mission is to raise awareness among Native youth of the dangers of domestic violence, teen dating violence, bullying, sexual abuse, suicide, cyber bullying and substance abuse. " The kids are in that delicate situation where they're facing decisions about drugs and alcohol," Junes says. "And we just tell them our story. We tell them, 'You don't need drugs to enhance your life. You can be a success in this life. But you have to make that decision on your own.'"
Tsosie and Junes' youth activism predates PPT by about five years. "We were just kind of doing our thing," Tsosie recalls. "The original idea was to do all the schools on the Navajo Nation. That's turned into going wherever we're needed." They perform these programs on a largely volunteer basis. Tsosie admits the work can be "a grind"—"and sometimes it almost comes to a complete stop. But we just keep it going. This kind of work is never-ending."
"Some people have said to us, 'Because of what you did, I've been sober for years,' or, 'I've gotten into physical fitness,'" Junes says, then recalls a recent breakthrough moment that hinged on a t-shirt Tsosie was wearing that said "Sober Native." "This one gentleman came up to me, he said he had made the decision to change his life because of that t-shirt. He said, 'I wonder what it's like to wear a t-shirt like that, and truly mean it.' I told him, 'Brother, you're doing the right thing.' Even if we just reach that one guy, that made it all worthwhile."
"We do comedy with a message," Tsosie says. "Initially, it was being celebrated as being drug-free, Native American men, husbands and entertainers. And, it's evolved into overall healthy mind, spirit and body."
The duo, who have been performing together since 2002, formed by accident. They had met each other, and were performing solo shows in the same venues for about a year. One night, in Tuba City, the show was running well behind schedule and the MC asked them if they'd take the stage together. They did, and ended up forming a partnership. Native standup comedy, as far as they knew, wasn't thriving. "This was all brand new," Junes recalls. "There were probably three Native comedians we'd ever known about when we started. We were pushing on doors nobody had ever pushed on. We're doing conferences. We're bombing some of the shows. We're questioning ourselves." But, at the same time, they were trying to follow their dream. They both cite Vincent Craig and Drew Lacapa as influences, saying that these Native pioneers encouraged them, early in their careers.
"We didn't really know about Charlie Hill until after we got started," Tsosie admits. "When we played with him for the first time, it was a great moment for us. He was the grandfather of Native comedy. He was the first one to bust down those doors. We were doing a show at Sky City Casino, and when came off stage, he was passing out advice like he was passing out candy. Over the years, he became a friend of ours."
The routines are not scripted, rather they are universally understood. "We kinda feed off the audience," Tsosie says. "We try to do something with a personal feel to the audience. Most times, we just test out our new material right on stage. We're based off of improv, but if a bit works really well, then we keep it. We don't rehearse. Our set list is always different."
"People always ask, 'How does Navajo comedy translate into Minnesota comedy, or Florida comedy?'" Junes says. "And I answer that we draw the same picture using their crayons. Native communities are similar." Tsosie adds that, while the jokes are delivered from a Native point of view, the humor is not restricted to any ethnicity; it's what he describes as "human comedy." "There will be some non-Natives that have lived on the reservation, and they kind of get the humor, but they don't really get it. But, the Native Americans get all the inside stuff. In the early years, I think we really geared towards Native America. But now we do mainstream—it works whether you're black, you're white or Native." The duo recognizes that diversifying their style opens up their act to a broader audience. Junes notes "When you present yourself in that way, you have this opening for people to hire you to perform in schools, conferences, wellness conferences."
James & Ernie account for two-fifths of the 49 Laughs Comedy Tour; together with Tatanka Means, Pax Harvey and Adrianne Chalepah they'll be taking the stage at the Farmington Civic Center in Farmington, New Mexico, on November 28—the day of rabid holiday shopping known as Black Friday. It should be a good show; after all, a previous 49 Laughs performance on the same day was captured for a DVD titled Red Friday Special, that has sold out. (According to the tour website, another pressing may be in the works.) Independent of 49 Laughs, James & Ernie have released two comedy DVDs and multiple CDs over the years, and have booked a spot in the lineup of Native Comedy Jam VI at Seven Clans Casino in northern Minnesota, on December 20. To keep up with James & Ernie, visit their official Facebook page, as well as that of the 49 Laughs Comedy Tour.